Jeffrey Holmes Burns Bridges!

 

cover

MAY THE BRIDGES I BURN LIGHT MY WAY / HOLMES: Thrall / Mari Kawamura, pno; Rachel Beetz, fl; James Sullivan, bs-cl; Shalini Vijayan, vln; Ashley Walters, cel; Kyle Motl, bs; Donald Crockett, cond / Nastrond I / Vijayan, vln; Yuri Inoo, perc / Kirurgi (String Quartet No. 2) / Lyris String Qrt / Oscularum Infame / Vijayan, vln; Charles Tyler, cel; Richard Valitutto, pno / Hrith (Hrið-Móðr-Ljómi) / Michael Kudirka, gtr; Tara Schwab, fl; Allen Fogle, Fr-hn; Inoo, perc; Allison Bjorkedal, hp; Tereza Stanislav, vln; Maggie Parkins, cel; Crockett, cond / 5 Microtonal Studies. Danzleikr / Kudirka, Brian Head, gtr / Nocturnes / Kudirka, gtr / Mālen (May the Bridges I Burn Light My Way) / Kudirka, Head, gtr; Paul Sherman, ob; Nic Gerpe, cel/pno; Stanislav, vln; Nick Terry, perc; Crockett, cond / MicroFest MF 13

American Jeffrey Holmes, who studied with Donald Crockett, Georg Friedrich Haas and Stephen Hartke, is one of the few modern composers who follow in the microtonal footsteps of Harry Partch and Júlian Carillo. This double-CD release is a fascinating glimpse into his musical mind.

The opener, Thrall, is described by him as “a concertante work for piano and five players …composed in 2014. The title comes from the Old-Norse language meaning ‘slave.’ The equal tempered confines of the piano [is played against] the microtonal intonations of the melodic instruments.” The slightly weird-sounding world of Partch is immediately evident from the opening piano flourish, and continues as the music develops—and develop it does in its strange, dark manner. Although not really jazz-based. there is a certain boogie-woogie feel to the eight-to-the-bar rhythm of the keyboard that comes and goes. The strings play mostly slurred figures around the piano’s rhythmic music. The whole piece has an unsettling sound, not so much atonal as sounding as if every key within the 12 tones of an octave are being played against one another at various points. Descending chromatics are used for the melodic instruments, or rather descending slurs through the whole of the tonal spectrum.

Nastrond I, described as “the first in a series of tone-poems that each depict a region of the Scandinavian mythological underworld,” pits violin against percussion in yet another application of microtonality. Yet it is surprisingly lyrical in its middle section, starting around the three-minute mark, where the violin plays a simple but effective series of held tones while the percussion plays lightly behind it (triangle, woodblocks, etc.). At one point, there’s a slight resemblance to Marius Constant’s Twilight Zone theme (surely the strangest TV show theme music ever written). At 7:57 the music again becomes very syncopated, with the violin taking the lead and the percussion echoing, but this, too, eases up and the music develops.

This is followed in turn by his second string quartet of 2009, titled Kirurgi. Its six movements “are separated by textural differences, but united through motivic unity and a consistent harmonic landscape.” This music is simply bitonal for the most part, not as microtonal as the preceding works, and is played with energy and great style by the Lyris String Quartet. Again, strong rhythms are featured, syncopated but not really jazz-like, alternating with long held notes by the quartet as a unit and by the solo instruments therein. The second movement, a long (seven-minute) fugue, is again somewhat bitonal and features another surprisingly lyric melodic structure, including a stand-out violin solo in the closing minute to which the second violin adds its own plaintive counter-song, followed by the viola and then the cello. This is one thing I really liked about Holmes: he doesn’t just have one style or one “voice.” His music is quite varied in approach. The succeeding movements of the quartet, in fact, each have their own character and feel, which contributes to the whole.

Oscularum Infame, written for piano trio in 2009, consists of four principal movements with three interludes as well as a prelude and postlude. Here, too, Holmes is “simply” atonal and not microtonal, yet the music moves in a slow, slithering fashion through the chromatic scale. Percussive crushed chords in the piano introduce the first movement after the prelude, a busy and complex movement with solos for each player. Some of this music has a bit of a George Antheil sound to it. Around the seven-minute mark, however, the music does become microtonal, and to interesting effect in context. Holmes created some real moods, and not just an intellectual exercise, in this astonishing work.

In CD 2 we encounter Holmes’ works for guitar, sometimes two guitars. Since this is an instrument that can easily be retuned to satisfy the whims of any composer, we are back in Microtonal Land. Hrith, the opening piece, was written for Holmes’ friend, guitarist Michael Kudirka, who plays on all of the works presented here. But most are not for guitar(s) alone, and Hrith is no exception. It begins, literally, with a bang from the percussion, following which we hear the French horn, strings, flute and harp before the guitar comes in against them in its own key or keys. One thing I especially liked about this music is that it uses the guitar in a strong way, often playing percussive chords à la Django Reinhardt or using “scrubs” like a Flamenco player. Very little of it is in the wimpy, Segovia-based style which has all but ruined classical guitar music over the last century. Kudirka does have a long solo in which some of the single notes are lightly plucked, but he is frequently asked to play with great strength and energy against the massed sextet behind him. The music has moments of quasi-modality in it but keeps melting in its microtonal morass. Holmes keeps our interest with his strong sense of musical structure. (Warning to programmers on classical music stations who just love to stick guitar pieces in: this is NOT music “for your body, mind and spirit.” It’s too good to be musical wallpaper.) The French horn blares long-held notes; the guitar becomes more agitated; the percussion booms once again, and the strings and winds slither upward like rising banshees—and yet, it ends softly.

The 5 Microtonal Studies, written in 2002 for two guitars, has one of the instruments tuned “approximately one-sixth of a tone beneath the other” although each guitar is in tune within itself. This gives the impression of one instrument constantly being “off.” The listener can take this one of two ways: as a purposeful, serious piece or as sort of a musical joke on those musicians who always seem to be off in pitch but can’t figure out which one of them is wrong. Either way, it’s fascinating music. Holmes plays with the guitars bouncing rapid triplet passages off each other in No. 5, ironically marked “Tranquillo” when it is nothing of the sort.

In Nocturnes, Holmes claims to be using “a new and unique theoretical and harmonic system” while combining three nocturnes in one, all of them “compiled, collected and juxtaposed upon one another in a variety of ways.” Again, some of the music is quite rapid in tempo, here belying the title of “nocturne,” although in some places a nocturnal mood is indeed created and sustained. Happily, the music is more than just a theoretical exercise. It is logically constructed and fascinating, often using upper harmonics as single notes within the harmonic framework.

In Danzleikr, Holmes has tried to bring some aspects of Nordic legends (his ancestral background) into the music and to “at times blend it with my personal musical language, and at others clash with it.” The result is a fascinating piece that sometimes sounds like Nordic folk music, only played by two guitars out of tune with one another.

The final work, which is the title track of this album, is a double concerto for two guitars and four other instruments: violin, oboe, celesta/piano and percussion. Yet it starts with just the two guitarists playing off each other until 3:06, when the flute enters holding a long D, with the oboe occasionally playing a microtone under it. The violin and percussion (it sounds like Chinese cymbals or finger cymbals) then enter playing edgier figures, joined by the oboe as the guitars placidly go on their own way in front of them. Eventually the whole group falls into these two styles, the flowing string-and-wind combination with percussion accents against the two guitars picking repeated eighth-note patterns. At the 12:234 mark, the percussion becomes quite strong and the music more rhythmic. It’s a fascinating, almost hypnotic piece.

All in all, this is quite a feast for lovers of the edgiest in modern music, well conceived pieces and very well performed.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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